Television

A DAY OF HALIFAX HORROR

The devastating 1917 explosion, which killed 2,000, is vividly conjured up in a new miniseries

JOHN DEMONT October 27 2003
Television

A DAY OF HALIFAX HORROR

The devastating 1917 explosion, which killed 2,000, is vividly conjured up in a new miniseries

JOHN DEMONT October 27 2003

A DAY OF HALIFAX HORROR

Television

The devastating 1917 explosion, which killed 2,000, is vividly conjured up in a new miniseries

JOHN DEMONT

HARD TO BELIEVE IT happened 86 years ago. So cataclysmic was the Halifax Explosion that so many people—no matter how far removed by time and distance from the disaster—have a story. Take screenwriter Keith Ross Leckie, who has never lived east of Toronto but spent his childhood summers at the farm outside Pictou, N.S. where his mother was born. Didn’t matter that she was just two years old when two ships collided in Halifax harbour, triggering the biggest man-made blast before the atomic bomb. Leckie grew up hearing his mom’s story of how the farmhouse shook 150 km northeast of Halifax on that cold day in December 1917. “I don’t know if it was true or not,” he says. “It was just part of the family folklore.” His mother-in-law, meanwhile, was a six-year-old in Halifax when the explosion occurred, killing 2,000 and injuring 9,000 more, but miraculously leaving her alive to tell Leckie about wandering through the ruined city.

Those stories were still as vivid as yesterday when he pounded out the script for Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion, a fourhour miniseries produced by Salter Street Films and Tapestry Pictures (CBC TV, Oct. 26 and 27). But they were just the starting point for the fictional tale of betrayal, endurance and redemption Leckie wove around the catastrophe. “There was so much tragedy and so many heroes,” he says. “The biggest challenge was trying to distill it for the space available and still make it work.”

It helps when the facts are so compelling: on Dec. 6,1917, the Mont Blanc, a Frenchowned freighter loaded to the gunnels with thousands of tons of TNT and benzol, collided in Halifax harbour with the Imo, a Belgian relief ship. The resulting explosion flattened two square kilometres of the city’s North End. Within seconds, entire families were wiped out and the survivors left to wander dazed, wounded and, in many cases, naked, through the decimated city in frigid winter temperatures.

WITHIN seconds, entire families were wiped out and the survivors left to wander dazed through the decimated city

Enter the fictitious Collins clan, on the surface a stolid middle-class Halifax family and, underneath, wracked by all the confusion and tension of the war-torn times. Beatrix (Tamara Hope), the impulsive daughter, is a Bolshevik who dreams of starting a trade union when not bedding Ernst (Zachary Bennett), a German spy with ultra-conflicted loyalties. Haunted by a moment’s hesitation in the trenches, Charlie (Vincent Walsh), the traumatized eldest son, is about to ship out again for the battlefields of Europe even though he has grave doubts about the morality of the war.

We meet the real-life and made-up players just as the Mont Blanc leaves New York for sombre wartime Halifax en route to France. There’s more than a whiff of Titanic in the way the human dramas play out while the time bomb is chugging ominously northward. Leckie and director Bruce Pittman spice things up with some espionage and romance. And the subplots about class struggle, women’s rights, the American role in the First World War and Canada’s place in geopolitics give the series added breadth and depth.

The moment of Armageddon, when it finally arrives, is truly haunting. The drama becomes a tale of survival as those who aren’t blinded or hopelessly maimed wander into the blasted hell that was Halifax. Then, the series shifts shape again as British star Pete Postlethwaite, playing prosecutor Charles Burchell, tries to get to the root of the disaster. It turned out that the captain of the Imo, who died in the blast, left the harbour without authorization and sailed too fast in the wrong channel. For his part, the French captain refused to go aground to avoid collision, then fled the burning ship along with his crew without scuttling the Mont Blanc or raising a warning flag. He was among three people charged in connection with the explosion, but then was sent home halfway through the trial at the request of the French, who offered to try him. In the end, though, he was tried by neither government. And ultimately, there were no convictions, which meant that Haligonians never got judicial closure to a horrific event.